Unlocking History

Inmate band leader left legacy outside prison walls

Men in suits stand in front of brick walls.
In 1921, the Oakland Municipal Band performed at San Quentin. Standing, the shorter man third from center on the right, is Damascus Gallur. He was paroled in 1929. Courtesy Oakland Public Library.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

When a music composer landed behind bars in 1915, he put his musical talent to work, assuming a leadership role in the San Quentin prison band. After serving 14 years, Damascus Garcia Gallur was paroled but found it difficult to re-integrate into society. The world had changed, as had its musical taste. Prior to his release, his original music was popular but in the new landscape of talking pictures and radio broadcasts, he was unable to earn a steady paycheck. This is part of the series of early inmates whose experiences helped shape today’s CDCR.

Gallur’s path to San Quentin

Damascus Gallur was convicted in 1915 for the slaying of railroad engineer Augustine Hotchkiss, who ran a small money lending business on the side. Gallur had taken out a loan but found it difficult keeping up with the payments. Hotchkiss came knocking at Gallur’s door and the pair argued. Pulling a gun, the musician shot Hotchkiss and hid his body in a closet.

Gallur’s stepson discovered the body and reported the crime to police. A few days later, Gallur was arrested and confessed to the murder.

Entertains jail inmates

While incarcerated at the city jail, “Professor” Gallur took to entertaining his fellow inmates.

“Prisoners … are being entertained daily with programs of Beethoven, Mozart, … and Chopin on the prison piano,” reported the Oakland Tribune, July 30, 1915. “Gallur is known as one of the best pianists in the bay region and he was delighted when he learned that there is a good piano in the jail. Hour after hour he has spent playing his favorite masterpieces. … In a few instances, Gallur has consented to play popular ballads and modern music, but for the most part he has solaced his soul with the music of the great masters.”

Gallur had previously served in a band aboard the U.S. battleship Oregon and was an associate of John Phillip Sousa, according to newspaper accounts.

Writing while incarcerated

During his years of incarceration, he wrote patriotic compositions that proved popular across the country.

Black and white photo of Damascus Gallur
A United Press photo shows Damascus Gallur in his prison band uniform. His hat features the letters “SQ MB,” for San Quentin Military (or Marching) Band.

“He was ‘The Professor’ to the 4,200 convicts in San Quentin prison. To John Philip Sousa, Louis B. Mayer and many others, he’s a creative musical genius of outstanding ability whose marches are played all over the world,” reported the El Paso Evening Post, Aug. 29, 1929.

“During (his incarceration) he has taken charge of the San Quentin Military Band, also the prison orchestra, and has made them two of the west’s finest musical organizations. But while this organization’s music has been confined within Quentin’s gray walls, Gallur’s music has been heard around the world, through the marches and overtures he has composed; numbers used regularly in band concerts and by Army, Navy and Marine bands.”

According to news accounts, his popular waltz, “May Day,” was dedicated to the daughter of the prison’s captain of the guard.

He also took first prize in the National Association of Music clubs’ “best march of the year” with a number he composed for the National War Mothers. The prize was $5,000, which he donated back to the mothers organization.

“His ‘Gold Stripe March’ has been made the official march of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in several states. It has been played before Presidents Coolidge and Hoover,” according to the Evening Post.

Outside world not welcoming

In 1929, he was granted parole and went to Los Angeles to try to rebuild his life on the outside. The first order of business, though, was to recover from a “paralytic attack.”

Black and white photo of three men in suit
D.G. Gallur, center, was paroled to Thomas D. Van Osten, left, in October 1929. On the steps with them is San Quentin Chaplain C.E. Stairs.

Thomas D. Van Osten, secretary of the Allied Amusement Industries of California and fellow former Sousa bandmate, was one of many who petitioned for Gallur’s parole. Van Osten was at the prison to receive his friend.

“He has written offers for vaudeville appearances, for conducting theater orchestras, for preparing theme songs for the talkies,” Van Osten told reporters waiting outside the prison. “But remember, the theaters and their music have changed since Gallur was confined. What we want is his recovery and rest.”

The Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1929 reported Gallur “for several months at least will be confined to hospitals and sanitariums, with even Dr. L.L. Stanley, San Quentin prison physician, assisting in the fight for his recovery from paralysis.”

Unfortunately, his health did not improve and he returned to prison by his own choosing.

“Because ‘liberty’ meant the shackles of poverty and illness, D.G. Gallur came ‘home’ today to ‘the kindest friends he ever had,'” reported the United Press, Jan. 26, 1931. “‘Home’ for the last time, he said, for he does not expect to again leave the gray walls of San Quentin. Gallur, once a famous bandmaster, … and composer of many stirring marches, living in a glamorous future during the 14 years here served of a life sentence for murder. Many of his more successful marches were written within the walls, Gallur often predicting that once outside he would write a march that would make him immortal.”

According to the report, he was on parole for 18 months. During that time, he unsuccessfully tried to pick up his life and career where he left off before incarceration.

“He went to Hollywood and obtained a job writing music for talking pictures. But things musical, like other things, had moved far from his (experience). He lost his job. Penniless, friendless and so ill he could hardly speak, he dragged himself into the parole office at Los Angeles and begged to be sent back ‘home.’ On ‘humanitarian grounds’ his plea (was) granted. Warden Holohan received him ‘as an act of kindness.’ Hospitalization will be available at the prison he could not afford outside,” the United Press report states.

The federal government had other ideas, according to some reports. Other news stories claim Gallur asked to be returned overseas.

“Damascus Garcia Gallur … is soon to be deported to his native Spain,” reported the Associated Press, Sept. 1, 1931. “Warden James B. Holohan was informed today of the plan of the immigration service to deport Gallur when he is released. … The musician was paroled about a year and a half ago because of paralysis and went to Los Angeles. (There, he) recovered somewhat but was unable to support himself, and after repeated failures came back (to San Quentin) voluntarily, where he was admitted because he had no other place to go. … He has not been able to lead the band actively for some time. Years before (his murder conviction) he had (also) served time for forgery. Because of his musical ability, the musicians’ union in San Francisco took an interest in him and helped him in many ways. At one time a petition containing 100,000 names was placed before the governor asking his parole.”

According to the Oct. 9, 1931, issue of The Press Democrat, deportation was Gallur’s idea.

“Several months ago Gallur asked if it would be possible for him to be paroled to the department of labor for deportation to Madrid. Arrangements have been made and the bandmaster starts homeward today,” the paper reported.

“Damascus Gallur, famous musician, sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, was released on parole from San Quentin prison today to spend the remainder of his days in his native Spain. Those days, physicians say, are numbered as he is … suffering from paralysis,” reported the Associated Press, Oct. 8, 1931.